Monday, March 4, 2013

Grass Fed Beef – it’s probably not what you think it is.

Most of what you’ve heard about grass fed beef is, forgive the pun, bullshit. I probably shouldn’t be telling you this. As a meat seller, I should just get some grass fed beef, jump on the bandwagon, jack up prices and merrily push it down the tubes. Unfortunately, I’m also a meat grower and every time I read another missive on how grass fed beef is so great it makes me want to rip out my eyeballs.

Alternative beef has been gaining traction for years now. I think this is a great thing. Just like a booming micro-brew business gives consumers extra choices and brewers increased employment, a plethora of protein options gives us all greater food security and a healthier agricultural economy. But somewhere along the way a few sensationalists jumped into the fray and started a snowball of faulty analysis that has turned into an avalanche of disinformation.

I think the largest contributor to this is the writer Michal Pollan, whose book, “The Omnivore’s Dilema” has become something of a bible for the grass fed beef industry. I have not read the book, I don’t plan on reading the book because maintaining a stable blood pressure is important to me, but I’ve had hundreds of people tell me all about this book so I think I’ve got some idea of what it says. However since I haven’t read it, I’m not going to address the book, rather I’m going to address what I’ve seen as the most common conventional wisdom regarding why grass fed beef is so gosh darned great.
In a nutshell the popular belief seems to be:
1.   Cows in their natural state are grass eaters but
2.   Feedlots confine them and force them to eat corn and then
3.   Their stomachs go haywire so
4.   Feedlots feed them antibiotics which
5.   Create antibiotic resistance in humans if only
6.   We all ate grass fed beef, everything would be peachy.

On the surface, this seems to make a lot of sense. To the layman this is a very logical argument and it has a nice feel good message to it. It’s simple and people love simple problems with simple solutions. But this slippery piece of pseudo-scientific reasoning has more holes than a high-end whorehouse.

The problem is that:

  1. Cows eat all kinds of grasses, grains, stalks, leaves, etc. Cows are amazing in their ability to turn just about any type of cellulose into protein. Cows can get fat at the salad bar, how cool is that? They’ve got these massive rumens, inside of which are a host of bacteria that ferment their forage until it can be absorbed. They even chew it multiple times just to squeeze all the nutrients out.  So to oversimplify a cow’s diet into two fields (ha!), grass or grain, is very misleading. *In case you were wondering, the four stomachs of a cow are the rumen, the reticulum, the omasum, and the abomasum. If we ever get into a trivia match, I will ask you that question.
  2. You can't force feed a cow anything. Food is put out for them twice a day, hopefully they will eat it all. But if cows aren't happy, they stop eating, don't gain any weight, and that makes farmers sad. Feedlot operators, who are often farmers who buy cows to feed their crops to, get paid by the difference in weight of the cows going out, versus that of the cows coming in. They hope to have an average daily gain of over 3 pounds. To do that they need to have a feed mixture that is balanced with enough energy, protein and roughage. Corn is used as the energy portion but cattle are fed a lot of things other than corn. Another thing on the subject of feedlots, cattle are not crammed into them. There are guidelines regarding how many square feet is needed for one steer or one heifer. But the real limiting factor is the amount of feedbunks. There has to be enough feedbunk space for every animal in the pen to eat or they won’t gain weight. Since the bunks usually run down one side of the pen, that’s how you determine how many animals you can fit in the pen. Huge pens don’t mean anything. Cows are herd animals, you could give them 20 acre each and they’d still all be bunched up together right in the spot that you don’t want them to be.
  3. Their stomachs do occasionally go haywire, the two biggest problems are bloat and acidosis. These can happen on rich grass as well as corn. Feeders don't want this to happen because it makes them go off feed and sometimes die. It is not only possible, but it is actually normal for feedlot cattle to have a very low incidence of both disorders. This is because the feeder does a good job of blending the feed allowing the cattle to slowly grow accustomed to new feed mixes. If the feeder doesn’t do this well, then his cattle don’t gain weight, he doesn’t make any money, and his daughters end up on the pole down at Bubba’s Lusty Longhorn. Feeders don’t want that to happen.
  4. The antibiotics that are used in the beef industry are mostly to influence the flora of the gut to increase feed efficiency. Prophylactic drug use tends to be reserved for high stress times like when cattle have just been moved into a feedlot or when the animal is really sick. It is OK if you read the word prophylactic and sniggered a bit at the thought of steers in condoms. When antibiotics are used for anything other than to promote daily gain, the goal is to get them off the antibiotics as quickly as possible because they are expensive.
  5. There is some risk of antibiotic resistant bacteria crossing over into humans. But it's not been happening and people have been looking for it pretty intensely. Two types of antibiotics make up 70% of those used in food animals; Ionophores at about 28% and Tertracyclines at 42%. Ionophores aren’t used in humans at all. Tetracyclines only make up 1% of the antibiotics used in humans. However one of the uses is to treat Chlamydia, so that’s a bit scary right there, fortunately there are other antibiotics that work better so you’ll be OK if things get a little out of hand at the Kyabakura. (My internet history is currently really sketchy…) If you’ve heard any of the anti-antibiotics mantra, you are probably familiar with the statement that 80% of the antibiotics used in the US are for animal agriculture. That’s a frightening number, but it’s not really news. Antibiotic use in animals has been regulated since the 50’s, and yet the vast majority of the science regarding resistance in humans has firmly pointed to the overuse of antibiotics in humans. This is something that we should keep a close eye on, but it really has next to nothing to do with grass fed beef.
  6. So if you have been using those arguments to solve the dilemma of being an omnivore in a complex food landscape, you might say the points are moot.
In addition to the grass fed movement playing very hard and fast with the facts, there is still not really a hard definition of what grass fed actually means. Nearly all cattle spend a portion of their lives on free range grazing. The typical steer or heifer raised for beef in the US will be slaughtered at 24 months of age. The final finishing portion in which the steer is fed a diet high in corn and other grains is usually for just the last three or four months, up until then, it was almost all grass. Also, inside the feedlot they get fed a lot of hay, so basically any US beef could make a 90% grass fed claim and be pretty honest.

Most places promoting grass fed beef like to call their beefmake 100% grass fed. I have no idea what this means. The USDA does regulate the grass fed claim, this is what they say about it:
Grass (Forage) Fed – Grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. The diet shall be derived solely from forage consisting of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state. Animals cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. Hay, haylage, baleage, silage, crop residue without grain, and other roughage sources may also be included as acceptable feed sources. Routine mineral and vitamin supplementation may also be included in the feeding regimen. If incidental supplementation occurs due to inadvertent exposure to non-forage feedstuffs or to ensure the animal’s well being at all times during adverse environmental or physical conditions, the producer must fully document (e.g., receipts, ingredients, and tear tags) the supplementation that occurs including the amount, the frequency, and the supplements provided.
There are a couple holes big enough in that definition to steer a bull through. First, grain crops can be fed in their pre-grain state. So while you can’t harvest corn and then feed them the corn, you can turn cattle out in the corn field and let them eat if off the stalks. Or you can even go out and chop down the corn before the kernels have dried into grains and feed them the silage. Second, the animals need to have access to pasture (I don’t know what size a pen has to be before you start calling it a pasture) during the growing season. Well, where I’m from in Nebraska, the growing season feels like it’s about 6 weeks long but is in fact 123 days. So you could theoretically background on grass all summer and fall, put them in the feedlot and feed them corn silage all winter, slaughter in February and call it grass fed. If you’ve ever had any really tender and juicy grass-fed beef in the US, this was probably what you had. I really don’t get the point. The reason it’s so confusing is because grass fed beef as a market niche has evolved due to a dislocate with reality as a result of some massive consumer confusion and the industry and regulatory bodies are having a very difficult time catching up.
At the moment there are a lot of different products that can make the claim to be grass fed. 
·         There’s beef that comes from cattle that spend all of their lives roaming pastureland and grazing with no supplemental feeding until they are finally captured, killed, and cut-up. This can only come from places that don’t have a severe winter because snow seriously impedes a cow’s ability to graze. Our Australian grass-fed is like this. The problem with this is that it’s very hard to have much consistency. The animals are harvested according to the calander, not according to their size or how fat they are. Sometimes it will be great, sometimes it will be so-so.
·         There’s beef that comes from cattle that graze part of the year and then are supplemented with hay or silage for part of the year. The quality of this beef depends on what breed of cattle it is, what types of grass they are grazing, and what the terminal weight and age of the animal ends up being. There is a huge range of quality in this category with most of it being on the low end.
·         There is beef that comes from animals that are raised in intensive rotational grazing environments on a variety of farmed forages. I got to see some of this in New Zealand (although it’s not the only method there and New Zealand is not the only place that does this) and I thought it was pretty cool. They plant their paddocks, which look a lot like pastures only smaller, with different plants like kale, oats, I even saw chicory, depending on the phase of the growout. Then they turn their steers lose in a small fenced off area until it’s all been consumed and move them to fresh forage every couple of days. This will produce very tasty beef, but considering all of the labor it requires, it really seems like it would be easier to just harvest the crops and then feed the cattle.
·         There is beef that comes from cattle that are in pastures that have feedbunks in them, and into these feedbunks cattle are given feed which is made up of a mixture of hay and cereals that are still “in their vegetative state”. I reckon that from a distance these places would look a lot like a feedlot, but I bet these feeders would get a bit touchy if you called it that. The best looking and tasting grass fed beef that I’ve seen came from places like this.   

“But grass-fed beef tastes better.” If you say that in my presence, and if I think I can get away with it, I will smack you on the back of your head. There are a couple of reasons why grain fed beef has become the standard in the industry. Feeding cattle grain during a final fattening stage called finishing produces a very consistent product with a higher level of marbling than beef that is not grain finished. Marbling is the single most important factor in determining palatability and tenderness. It’s not a matter of personal preference, our taste buds recognize the fats in marbled meat and our palates prefer that fat. In every blind taste test ever done anywhere by anyone anytime in the history of eating cow meat, abundantly marbled beef tastes better than beef with little or no marbling. Corn does a very good job of increasing marbling.

“But what about the Omega 3’s?” Whenever I hear this, my smacking hand starts to get twitchy. First off, you should never make dietary decisions based upon one micronutrient, with the possible exception of Vitamin C because scurvy is a bitch. The studies on this have been very limited and while there is some correlation, that doesn’t mean that it’s a causal relationship. I personally suspect that the formation of Omega 3 fatty acids in beef has more to do with genetics than with feeding. That would explain why Japanese Wagyu, which are more intensively grain fed than any other beef on the planet, is also high in Omega 3. The science of nutrition is still in its infancy, if you want to eat healthily, eat a lot of different things.

“But what about sustainability?” This is fodder for a different posting, but without defining what sustainability means, it’s hard to make any claims. I have yet to see a measurable definition of sustainablitly, but I see the word used a lot to sell things that are definitely not good for the environment.    

My apologies for the exceedingly long post, but I think beef is great, some beef is greater than others, but there’s no reason to denigrate any particular method. There are a number of large challenges facing the beef industry, issues like concentration in the packing industry, reluctance of youth to enter agriculture as a profession, conservation of resources, etc., etc. But grass fed versus conventional is not one of the serious issues of the day and it pains me that so many people think it is. The import take away form all of this is to buy all of your beef from The Meat Guy! Because beef from any other source will cause your hair to fall out and force your female offspring to enter into salacious employment.